The Beauty & Benefits of Plants in Design
Houseplants can make your home a more peaceful place
By Aaron Parsley
At the height of Austin’s stay-at-home order last spring, parking lots at Shoal Creek Nursery and The Great Outdoors—both deemed essential businesses—regularly overflowed. Six months later, before Election Day 2020, the Frond Plant Shop was busy with antsy customers.
“So many stressed-out people were coming in and saying, ‘I need a break. I need to buy a plant and take it home,’” says owner Sarah Barnes.
In a year of pandemic fears, fraught politics, pain and protest, the house plant craze kicked into high gear as people took in philodendrons, succulents and more, adding to collections or starting indoor jungles from scratch.
“People need greenery or plants in their space,” explains Laura Britt, president and managing principal at Britt Design Group, an Austin-based firm that emphasizes wellness in design. “Those things can promote a biophilic response … It calms you down and can improve respiration. It can lower your blood pressure.”
Now, at the start of a year that holds so much promise—of putting a pandemic in the past, of hosting, entertaining, gathering—spaces used for retreat and restoration will soon welcome outsiders again. Home is both a sanctuary from the world and a place to celebrate with guests. Honest, thoughtful design should serve both purposes, enveloping dwellers in calm and comfort while demonstrating taste and displaying the objects we cherish—like our plants. With that duality in mind, we spoke with experts about keeping plants alive and incorporating them in a well-designed home.
“I never felt like a room looks good without plants in it,” says Meeta Morrison, owner of MMD Architecture. Sitting on her porch next to a massive Monstera deliciosa, she explains how plants add complexity to design. “Color, texture and scale are all part of the composition of a space,” she says. “With plants, you can play with these and use patterns in the plants themselves to bring out the patterns of your room.”
At Mark Ashby Design, Christina Simon creates beauty in homes of various styles and says plants can work without disrupting the design.
“Plants do a good job of adding organic form and color in such a way that you don’t even realize you’re decorating with them,” she says. “They don’t interfere with any other design concepts … You can keep a super monochromatic look and add a plant for that hint of green without compromising minimalist design.”
Morrison agrees, adding that volume is less of a concern when it comes to plants. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re being minimal or maximal, because plants will always be minimal,” she says. “When you have a room that’s exploding with art and objects, everything demands your attention. Plants have a way of being symbiotic in that room. They work with each other.”
Living walls, Ikea cabinets rigged into stylish mini-greenhouses and shelves lined with trailing vines are creative options for the “more is more” crowd.
Instead of hanging art, a plant shelf helped create cohesiveness in the entrance to Morrison’s home, which is open and bright with lush gardens in the front and back yards. “It was like walking into an indoor jungle,” she says. “You have this space [in the front] and this space [in the back], and they’re all supposed to flow together. For the entry to have no plants, it would make no sense.”
Britt’s firm has used Scandinavian reindeer moss to line walls, adding texture and color. For teetotaling clients, she converted a wine storage area into a plant wall. “The plants are in little pockets, their own individual containers, and they hang on the wall individually,” says Britt of the design.
Simon suggests using a single plant—but something tall and dramatic—to fill a void. “That’s an elegant solution,” she says. “Instead of three clusters of pretty yet similar potted plants in a corner, I would rather have one big olive tree to create a broad sweeping movement.”
The olive tree might be a new “it” plant for designers—though it won’t be easy to replace the fiddle leaf fig. The Ficus Audrey is also very popular, according to Melissa Lorraine Hagen, the houseplant manager at Tillery Street Plant Co. in East Austin. Like Barnes at Frond Plant Shop, Hagen offers exotic and up-and-coming specimens, but hopes décor-minded customers will consider a space’s impact on a plant over a plant’s impact on a space. She recommends, for example, the easier-to-care-for dracaenas and sansevierias for their reliability and diversity of color, form and shape.
There’s both a science and an art to picking out plants, taking both health and beauty into consideration. After all, the benefit of keeping plants comes from a routine of caring for a life, finding the perfect place where it will be happy and complement a home, and in the joy of discovering vivid new green unfurling from a petiole.
“We need to have something alive and something we can nurture,” says Britt. “Maybe because 2020 was so hard for so many people, for so many reasons, finding that new growth is almost like that little element of hope, that new beginning.